The Book of Mormon declares that Lehi and members of his family, faithful Israelites living near Jerusalem about 600 BC, learned the Egyptian language and then used this knowledge to read holy scriptures and keep personal records.1 It also makes it clear that these faithful Israelites called their children and places in their promised land by Egyptian names.2 Such propositions would likely have been scorned in Joseph Smith's day; doctors of theology in the early 1800s would have based their views of Egyptian-Israelite relations primarily upon the Israelites' seeming disdain for Egyptian culture as reflected in the Bible. However, as Hugh Nibley pointed out a few decades ago, the abundance of archaeological and literary records then coming forth from the Near East was causing scholars to rethink the nature of Egyptian-Israelite cultural relations, bringing their ideas closer to the Book of Mormon's portrayal.3
More recent finds continue to alter or at least sharpen our views as to the conditions in and around Jerusalem during the latter half of the seventh century. What follows summarizes the present state of understanding among the scholars. First, I will review the current understanding of Egyptian interactions with the land of Canaan to show that Egyptian political and cultural influence was at a high point in Lehi's day, and I will discuss the nature of those interactions in order to explore the degree of Egyptian cultural assimilation by Syro-Palestianians. Second, I will review the scholars' views on some of the specific epigraphic evidence that has been recently uncovered, suggesting that Lehi would indeed have had opportunities to learn Egyptian near his home in Jerusalem and to use it not only to read Egyptian but to keep records and teach his posterity. As the prevalence of Egyptian influence in and around Lehi's Jerusalem is made apparent, it becomes clear that the Book of Mormon has indicated all along what the scholars are increasingly coming to understand.
When the current view of Egyptian political interaction with the land of Canaan during the decades surrounding Lehi's day is placed within its broader context of Egyptian-Israelite history, we discover that Egyptian political domination over the area was at a high point at that time. During the early New Kingdom period of Egyptian history (particularly the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties, about 1539–1190 BC), Egypt had a strong imperial presence in the land of Canaan; however, subsequent dynasties leading up to Lehi's day were times of political disunity and comparative weakness in Egypt as foreigners ruled the land.
Under Ramses XI, in the eleventh century BC, the Twentieth Dynasty collapsed and the political structure of Egypt was divided. Northern Egypt came under the rule of Egyptianized Libyans (the Twenty-first Dynasty), centered at Tanis.4 However, southern Egypt was controlled for the most part by high priests of Amun at Thebes. Mainly due to the constant internal conflicts caused by this division, the pharaohs of the Twenty-first Dynasty could not maintain any consistent political control over the Levant.5 However, they did attempt from time to time to exert their influence in that area. For example, a successful campaign against the city of Gezer in Palestine eventually led to a diplomatic marriage between King Solomon and an Egyptian princess.6 But in spite of small victories such as this, Egyptian political weakness in the region was evident.7 Consequently, less Egyptian material culture is found in Israel during this time than during the earlier New Kingdom period; however, economic and cultural contact was maintained with Canaan and other parts of Asia through commerce with the Mediterranean coastal states such as Phoenicia.8
At the beginning of the Twenty-second (Bubastid) Dynasty (1069–945 BC), Sheshonq (the biblical Shishak) sought to resurrect the early Ramesside glories of Egypt by unifying the land and expanding its borders.9 However, in the wake of major internal Theban rebellions during the ninth century (bringing about the existence of the Twenty-third Dynasty in southern Egypt) and divisions within the Bubastid family itself, this dynasty eventually proved incapable of controlling foreign lands. Ironically, "despite its political weakness," Donald Redford observes, "Egypt remained a repository and a source of wealth . . . [and] the inhabitants of western Asia welcomed trade in the exotic products Egypt had to offer."10 It was during this time that contemporary Hebrew glyphic art employing the winged scarab, an icon strongly associated with Bubastid land around Sile, began to appear in Caanan.11
During the Twenty-fifth (Kushite or Nubian) Dynasty and the subsequent decades surrounding Lehi's time, political and cultural relations between Egypt and Israel reached a new high. Because they were initially able to unite Egypt and obtain a relative stability at home, the Kushite rulers adopted a more rigorous political policy in Syro-Palestine than their Libyan predecessors. However, this expansion of influence caused the Egyptians to bump up against the Assyrians, who were growing from the east. Egypt and Israel, among others, soon became allies to combat this new imperial force. Several attempts by Egypt to resist Assyrian invasion eventually led to its fragmentation. Assyrian overlords were installed over northern Egypt, and in time the Kushite rulers withdrew back into Nubia, marking the end of their dominance over Egypt.
Historian John Taylor states that "the bloodshed and destruction that followed from the Kushite opposition to Assyria proved to be a cloud with a silver lining: it emphasized the necessity for military and civil cooperation by the rulers of the [Egyptian] principalities."12 This cooperation enabled the Pharaoh Psammetichus I (Psamtik I) to unify all of Egypt. He drew upon mercenaries from surrounding nations, including Israel, for unification purposes as well as for defense against further conflicts with Assyria, and he maintained trade links with the Levant—primarily Phoenicia—and with Greece in order to strengthen his country economically. This, of course, encouraged Egyptian cultural influence in the land of Canaan.
Psammetichus quickly gained independence from Assyria, which had turned its attention to internal conflict and to its eastern and southern neighbor nations, which were growing in power. Once free from Assyrian rule, the Twenty-sixth Dynasty pharaohs continued to play an active role in the politics of the Levant. In fact, as Assyria began to weaken and withdraw from Egypt and Syro-Palestine, Psammetichus quickly filled the void.13
Psammetichus's son, Necho II, continued his father's political ambitions in the Levant, sending campaigns east of the Euphrates against the Chaldean armies. En route Necho II defeated and killed King Josiah in 609 BC at Megiddo and set up the Egyptian border near the Euphrates; after dealing with the Chaldeans, he returned to establish hegemony over Israel. In the interim, Josiah's son Jehoahaz had ascended the throne for a three-month reign. However, because of his anti-Egyptian sentiments—and probably also through the schemings of his older brother, Eliakim/Jehoiakim, who should have been the heir—Jehoahaz was exiled by Necho II to Egypt, where he died. Necho II placed Jehoiakim on the throne. Not only was the king of Judah installed by Pharaoh, but other officials seem to have been installed as well. Biblical scholar Ephraim Stern, basing his remarks principally upon more recent archaeological evidence, declares, "Through the years from Josiah to the coming of the Babylonians, Egyptian officials ruled both in Philistia and Judah."14 The exiling of Jehoahaz, the subsequent appointment of Jehoiakim, and the seeming appointment of other officers in the land of Judah by Pharaoh all suggest Egypt's very strong political presence in Israel in the decade prior to Lehi's departure from Jerusalem. This dominance, however, did not last long, for in 605 BC the Chaldeans defeated the Egyptians at Carchemish and pushed them back to their own land. Later, Psammetichus II, Necho II's successor, arranged a revolt against the Babylonians with the aid of Zedekiah, then king of Judah, but the Babylonians prevailed and eventually razed the cities of Judah and Palestine to the ground.15
As the above historical outline demonstrates, the alliances of Egypt with Israel during the late Twenty-fifth and early Twenty-sixth Dynasties and the subsequent political desires of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty for imperial expansion16 caused Egypt's political influence in Israel to reach unprecedented heights. Such was the immediate contemporary political situation in which Lehi and his family existed. This strong political influence surrounding Lehi's day surely would have emphasized those Egyptian cultural features that were already embedded in Canaan during the New Kingdom empire—and even those embedded in subsequent times of political weakness as noted above. But more importantly, this political ambience provided a climate in which contemporary Egyptian cultural influence would flourish.
Gregory D. Mumford, in examining the heretofore largely ignored archaeological picture of Egyptian artifacts in southwestern Asia from 1550 to 525 BC, has shown that Egyptian cultural influences in Syro-Palestine seem to peak four times in nineteen time divisions—namely, in 1450–1400 BC (Eighteenth Dynasty time period), 1250–1150 BC (Nineteenth Dynasty time period), 925–850 BC (Twenty-second [Bubastid] Dynasty time period), and 750–600 BC (Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Dynasty time periods).17 In addition, Ephraim Stern has recently demonstrated that Egyptian material culture in Israel from the reign of Psammetichus I to that of Psammetichus II (ca. 664–589 BC) was plentiful, attesting to the close political interactions that Egypt had with Israel as Assyria dwindled in strength.18 Thus, as seen above, the more recent historical and archaeological studies demonstrate and emphasize even more that Egyptian political and cultural influence in Canaan was at one of its peaks in the immediate decades leading up to Lehi's time.
While this certainly seems to be an environment that would justify the numerous Egyptian manifestations found in the Book of Mormon, trying to understand the actual nature of the cultural influence of Egypt upon Israel is problematic. One of the principal questions scholars have debated is whether Egyptian cultural manifestations in other lands suggest that Egypt typically established itself as a direct ruling empire or whether it simply controlled the area politically or economically from afar, using vassal-treaty agreements with Egyptianized or non-Egyptianized local elites ruling under the auspices of Egypt.19
Direct rule would imply the annexing of conquered territory and the establishing of Egyptian settlements within their boundaries—not only military garrisons but also civilian settlements, where Egyptian administrators would be permanently stationed in order to impose laws, collect taxes, and so forth (similar to those seen in Egypt's expansion into Nubia).20 This degree of infiltration would provide strong cultural influences, for the Egyptians themselves would build and settle these sites, bringing with them their culture and ideologies in both domestic and workplace settings.
On the other hand, if Egypt used the local elite to rule conquered territory, then the cultural influence would seemingly be less than that under direct rule; however, it would likely still be present, especially if these local leaders adopted, to one degree or another, the culture of their overlords. The cultural assimilation of things Egyptian by an Egyptianized local elite would most likely be reflected in prestige goods that locals acquired from Egypt or through comparatively minor borrowing of Egyptian features of art and architecture adapted or synthesized into the local culture. This view of Egyptian imperialism, which has become the more popular view defended in recent years,21 should be of continuing interest to Latter-day Saint audiences, for it suggests that many of the Egyptian artifacts in Syro-Palestine that have shown up in the current archaeological record reflect real assimilation of Egyptian culture by upper-class natives rather than, or in addition to, Egyptian occupation of the land. Laban and Lehi would certainly qualify among the elite of Jerusalem, as evidenced by references to their position and wealth (see 1 Nephi 3:22–25, 31; 4:20–22).
Some of the specific cultural artifacts that have recently been uncovered in and around the land of Judah provide good evidence that Lehi would indeed have had opportunities to learn Egyptian near his home in Jerusalem. Archaeologists in Canaan are unearthing a growing body of artifacts that feature Egyptian writing on them.22 The nature of some of these artifacts, as postulated by the scholars, suggests an adoption by Syro-Palestinian locals of Egyptian script for accounting purposes.23 Still other artifacts suggest the presence of Egyptian scribes in the area.24 Due to its prominence, Orly Goldwasser states that Egyptian writing was the more progressive form of Egyptian cultural influence attested in Israel in the eighth and seventh centuries.25
The kind of Egyptian script being employed on those artifacts dating around the time of Lehi is hieratic,26 but since Demotic was the script of the day in northern Egypt and "abnormal hieratic" was predominant in southern Egypt, the normal hieratic tradition in Canaan must have been adopted from an earlier time—possibly, Goldwasser suggests, during the reigns of David and Solomon or even earlier in the tenth century BC—and was in continued use in Israel.27 This last point may have some bearing upon the script that Lehi and Nephi used when making their records. It has generally been assumed that Demotic was the script of choice for Lehi and Nephi, for it is the most compact of the Egyptian characters and was the most predominant in Egypt at this time; however, the archaeological record to date reveals that hieratic was the more commonly used Egyptian script in Israel.28
This use of hieratic script in Canaan has led Goldwasser to postulate further that during the height of the New Kingdom's cultural influence in Canaan, many scribes and teachers made their way into the Levant to set up businesses. However, "after the decline of the Egyptian Empire . . . many Egyptians, or Egyptian-trained Canaanite scribes lost their means of existence, and may have offered their scribal and administrative knowledge to the new powers rising in the area, first the Philistines and then the Israelites. . . . We would like to suggest that these Egyptian or Egyptian-trained scribes, cut off from their homeland, well acquainted with Egyptian decorum as well as the Canaanite language, educated local scribes, who in their turn passed on their knowledge to their successors."29 Such a view, bolstered by the Egyptian title "scribe" appearing in hieratic on an artifact from Lachish,30 suggests the possibility that by Lehi's day, scribes having a knowledge of Egyptian had existed in the area for quite some time and had maintained a tradition of writing Egyptian.31 The fact that an Egyptian scribal tradition existed locally could imply that Lehi learned Egyptian from a local scribe or even from his own father, just as Lehi presumably taught Nephi (see 1 Nephi 1:1–2).32
At the very beginning of the small plates, Nephi informs the reader: "Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians" (1 Nephi 1:2). Various interpretations have been given concerning this verse, and the accepted understanding is that Nephi's record was written using at least an Egyptian-based script.33 It is also possible that Nephi is here informing the reader that he is making a record using his father's system of writing ("the language of my father") and that this system, as he goes on to tell us, consists of Jewish learning and Egyptian language.34 This would further imply that Lehi's own personal record, which Nephi had previously copied onto his large plates and was now about to abridge onto his small plates (see 1 Nephi 1:16–17; 10:1; 19:1),35 may also have been written using Egyptian.36
Using aspects of Egyptian language for record keeping among Lehi's posterity continued all the way to the days of Mormon and Moroni. By that time, however, Mormon informs us that the language had been "altered"—presumably the spelling, syntax, and grammar changed according to speech patterns, as Mormon tells us, but it is also likely that the script/characters employed were also altered over time so that it could be read only by the Nephites (Mormon 9:32, 34).37 Still, reason dictates that when Lehi and Nephi initially wrote their records, they used aspects of the Egyptian language that would have been recognizable to the Egyptians of their day.38
Of course, every detail concerning the nature and extent of Egyptian cultural influence in Israel, particularly writing, has not yet come forth; for instance, long historical Israelite narratives in Egyptian are not currently attested. Consequently, the relationship between Egypt and Israel and the cultural influence that Egypt had upon Lehi's world deserves greater exploration in the coming years, especially as new archaeological and textual finds continue to change our views as to what occurred during this time period. For now, however, the evidence attests to a solidly established relationship between Egypt and Israel. Egyptian political and cultural influence in Israel surrounding the time of Lehi was at a peak, Egyptian language was being employed for record-keeping purposes, and the possibility of an Egyptian scribal tradition existing in the area of Jerusalem gives plausibility to the Book of Mormon's claim that Lehi and his posterity learned and used Egyptian for record-keeping purposes. The authenticity of the Book of Mormon continues to be sustained as the picture of Lehi's Jerusalem becomes clearer.